What it actually means when someone is saying I am from this or that country? What are countries? What role do they play in your personal development and character building? I am from Greece for example. Some of you are already biased just by hearing that depending on your previous experiences with other Greeks in your life. Some will say Greeks are very hospitable, others will say they never work and just wait for money to magically appear in their pockets. If you’re a Greek and reading this you’ll most likely think "oh we’re the best country in the world". All these are of course stereotypes based on personal experiences, domestic environment and multiple other external factors. Throughout this article I will refer to people from random countries to reinforce my arguments, that doesn’t mean that everyone is the same or that I am stereotyping people from specific countries, there are always exceptions. I will use these countries simply as examples in their majority. What is a country then? With a simple search it is defined as a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory. Let’s start with that last word; territory.
Try to imagine the borders of Germany for example on this map. I am using Germany because it is lodged inside Europe.
If you’re European you might get close, if you’re German you might get closer, but no one can get it exactly right; it’s simply impossible. Even if you zoom in and look for specific landmarks, roads or rivers that identify these borders, you still wouldn't be too sure about the actual border lines. Now try to figure out where Germany is on this new map below.
Way easier right? Ok, Europe has weird squiggly lines due to millennia of warfare, hence let's do a simpler exercise with USA borders. Try to draw the border lines on the map on the left using your mind. No matter how well you know the United States and even if you let the map on the right guide you, you will always fall short a few kilometers (well miles if you're American).
Observing the map on the right, it becomes easy to differentiate between the US, Canada and Mexico and even the states themselves. Without the border lines the only possible answer to our question is "It goes like that somewhere here and ends somewhere there".
A country is something that exists in our collective imaginations. We have all agreed that Portugal ends where Spain starts, that here is my country and beyond that line I imagined is another country. Most people feel proud of their own countries, due to previous achievements by their ancestors or a particular person of the same ethnicity who excelled in their field, might that be sports or science or whatever. When a Spanish person watches a game of tennis between Nadal and Djokovic they support Nadal regardless of who they enjoy watching more. When a French athlete wins in the Olympics, they proudly raise their flag and the whole French population feels proud. We are in a constant competition between our countries and our achievements since the beginning of civilization. Throughout history, there is an endless war between countries, because WE are good and they are bad, because WE want what they have, because WE… are superior. Of course we have fought for other reasons as well, but let’s not pull on that thread just yet.
Some people will say some countries are better than others due to their unique cultures, belief systems, economies, politics, traditions etc. and that might be true to some extent myself being stereotypical as well for a brief moment, but someone born in Australia is far better off in life than someone born in Syria; that is unfortunately simply true no matter how objectively you try to look at it. This fact will help demonstrate my next argument:
the randomness of our birth.
Take an Italian newborn and after their first breath, fly them to London to be raised by a British family. As the years go by, that person will grow up to be British never having known their original country of origin. They will feel British, sing the anthem for the queen and cheer for England every time they lose in the World cup. They will feel proud of all the British scientists and their inventions, the industrial age and the fact that they were once the biggest empire on the planet. Now in the next scenario, we let the Italian baby grow up in Rome, learn about Roman history in school, go to catholic church with their family and take part in all Italian traditions. That person will stand up to the Italian anthem every time Ferrari wins in Formula 1, will feel proud every time a movie is made about the Romans and will feel ashamed of Mussolini. I hope this example was understandable because we are about to head into one of its variations that always has me baffled.
If you’re watching NBA, you’re probably familiar with the Antetokounmpo brothers. Born and raised in Greece to Nigerian parents, all Greeks are proud to watch Giannis play in the NBA and are proud of his accomplishments. The same people who admire Antetokounmpo will be racist against a random Greek person on the street of the same black or brown skin. Of course when I am saying All, I am always referring to majority, not everyone. If someone has achieved something in the name of our country, our pride for the glorification of our country extends to them. If it’s a nobody on the street, we look at them as something different, something that shouldn’t be here, but back beyond that border line we imagined.
Let’s look into some more examples:
A poor American cannot get treatment for their cancer, when a poor Canadian can and has more chances of surviving merely because they had the luck to be born in Canada
A child in a poor town in Africa can barely find enough food to sustain themselves when the average kid in Germany has all the food they can ask for.
A Syrian leaving their war-torn country is considered a hostile refugee when they cross into Europe, but a Spanish person going to Berlin is considered a friendly visitor.
These are generalized examples and each of them have a lot more conversation and factors relating to them, but they help bring out the main issue of this whole article: The place we are born into, somehow defines who we are. Why?
Nature VS Nurture
This debate goes all the way back to ancient Greek philosophers and is still in question today. Plato argued that our behaviours, character traits and knowledge are predetermined before birth (Nature).
You might have heard or possibly even used the phrase "I was born ready", or "I was born to rule", or the generalized version "I was born for this"; meaning the body and mind we inhabit are pre-decided, and it is partly true. There are many hereditary traits we are born with; there are countless studies done with twins being separated at birth or adopted siblings that can prove it to a degree. It seems we are predisposed to specific behaviours and characteristics from the moment we open our eyes.
Aristotle (Plato's student) argued that we are born with a clean slate, the otherwise known in Latin as Tabula Rasa (Nurture).
Every person is a blank canvas ready to be painted on with experiences and knowledge acquired from their environment. External factors such as parents, friends, experiences etc. shape us to who we are. A very simple example is the one mentioned earlier about the newborn baby who was born in Italy, but raised in the UK.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Without going into much detail, Epigenetics studies just that. Changes in the gene expression that don't affect the DNA sequence. They are influenced by external factors such as environment and lifestyle and can trigger changes in how the cells read the genes.
After this small parenthesis, let's continue from the previous argument:
How do countries define us
I think it's fair to say that a lot of our unconscious bias comes from the external factors of the country we grew up in and our ethnic background. While growing up, we are being told by everyone around us that this is who we are, this is our history, these are our traditions, this is what we believe in. It is therefore easily distinguishable for a kid, even from early age that the people who are born within their imagined borders are different from the people outside of them. An example that probably applies to many Europeans (through the eyes of the kid) is that people of black or brown skin only sell cheap stuff on the streets, clean the windshield of your dad's car or rob houses. I personally had to come to London to realize the folly of my upbringing. I felt ashamed for the 20 years I had lived believing all that just because it was considered common knowledge in my society/ environment. Despite my parents never exhibiting any from of racism, the external factors/ behaviours of everyone inside our imagined lines was enough to have me believing it. As I said in the beginning, I am not condemning everyone of being racist, just taking into consideration the majority of my life experiences.
Now what if I had been born in our next door neighbour Turkey? I would have had different traditions, I would have been taught different history, I wouldn't feel any sort of pride for Leonidas of Sparta and would have probably been raised Muslim instead of Christian Orthodox. All these things that defined me and my character up to my early 20s would have been different. What does that say about someone's personality? Would you still be you if raised somewhere else? Try to think of a country on the other side of the planet from where you're from. Would you say with confidence that Plato was right and you would still have the same personality no matter your place of birth? (Granted you had the same gene pool)
A funny and simple example would be if you're a Swede making fun of Norwegians. Now imagine being born in Norway and living your life making fun of Swedes. Simple and usually harmless, but it is something that would define parts of your character nonetheless.
I am about to be a father for the first time to two little twins whose nationality will be questionable. I hold Greek, Canadian and British passports while my wife is Lithuanian. We've been discussing a lot about where to settle and raise them as there are many factors to consider, but one thing is for certain; the country we'll raise them in will play a big role in their upbringing. Will they feel proud of ancient Greek civilization, break plates dancing and go to the beach? Will they watch hockey, be polite to everyone and use maple syrup on everything? Will they take an interest in football, drink afternoon tea and go to the pub on Friday? Will they watch basketball, be obsessed with potatoes and wait every year for the 24th of December?
One might argue that some of these things might happen regardless of where they grow up, but it would be simply untrue to deny that their country wouldn't affect their decisions. We each have our personalities, but some of our character traits are "forced" on us. The way we see the world is affected by our environments for all our lives. Accept your country's traditions not because that's what you were brought up to do, but because you actually enjoy them. Develop your character on your own volition and don't let anyone tell you who you are. It's beautiful to be different, but not because you were born on that side of the mountain.
In order to go forward as a species, we need to let go of the things that make us different, the things that we were brought up to believe. Our homophobia, xenophobia and general mistrust of people who act and look different than us have been crucial obstacles in our collective advancement. We are only a few years away from putting "Planet of birth" in our passports and yet we fight over the different colour of our skin, our belief systems, our sexual preference and country of origin. Either we like it or not, we are all on the same boat. Us privileged few who won the lottery of birth in a developed country need to be the first ones to shed our mantles of superiority and understand that we are all the same. We all have people we care about and we're just trying our best to make it through this life. A refugee father is trying the best for his children same way I am going to work to feed my family. He just happened to be born on the other side of the imaginary line. Does that make him so different?